Environmental enrichment may initially sound like a fancy term, but it really just refers to activities you can provide in your flock’s coop and surrounding access areas that can promote their natural tendency to investigate and explore! At the same time, enriching your chickens’ environment can boost their health and egg production.
Environmental enrichment is known to be beneficial for many types of animals from zoo animals to our own dogs and cats. Backyard chickens aren’t any different. Wild birds love to forage and so do our backyard birds, but sometimes we only have a small space for them to live in. We can still promote their natural intrepid foraging tendencies by providing and rotating unique and entertaining perches, toys, smells, and foods. This way, you can keep your birds more stimulated and support good flock health. Enrichment activities will boost their overall wellbeing, and they may even show fewer tendencies towards adverse behaviors such as fear or feather pecking.
In fact, you are already providing some environmental enrichment by collecting eggs and cleaning the coop! You may have noticed how attentive and interested the hens are when you do these things. This is when your hens are happiest. You can keep your hens busy, stimulated, happy, and healthy with the following enrichment ideas, many of which are easy to install and easier to use:
Try adding permanent items to your coop like perches and ramps. Chickens love to scratch and seek, so they’d love the addition of a small sandbox. You can create even more entertainment by burying grubs, meal worms, and other insects in the sand for them to find. To make eating even more exciting, place a hanging basket just off the ground in the coop and put a whole pumpkin, cabbage head, or watermelon into the basket. Your birds will enjoy the challenge, and it will be devoured quickly! Another easy addition to their environment is a small radio playing music.
Don’t forget to give your chickens a dust bath area! A dust bath is sort of like a shower for people, except instead of getting into the water, your birds will roll around in the dirt! It seems weird, but it’s very normal behavior for chickens. They will dig a shallow area, hunker down into it, and coat themselves in dust and dirt to clean the skin and feathers of parasites, dead skin, and other bothersome things. It’ll also help to get rid of any excess oil that results from preening behaviors.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to set up a dust bath area to allow your birds to practice their normal grooming behaviors, especially if they are confined and unable to go searching for a suitable area on their own. But how? Provide a dry, sunny spot for your birds to bathe in. Try adding dust, dirt, fine sand, wood ash (from your fireplace, free of any type of chemicals or lighter fluids), or diatomaceous earth (being careful not to inhale it, yourself). Clean out any chicken manure from the bathing area regularly, and refresh the contents often. Check out these other suggestions from the Fresh Egg Daily blog to create a good dust bathing area and a happy chicken!
Once they’re feeling clean and refreshed, your birds will want to play! Toys are a popular way to promote chicken play behavior. To spur interest, try adding parrot toys with mirrors, placing metallic foil spinning pinwheels just outside the coop, or hanging CDs from strings in the hutch. Toys will be most impactful if you rotate them, so use one or two at a time and then exchange them out of the coop every 2-3 months to keep the hens stimulated. You don’t have to go out and buy new toys each time; keep the old toys and bring them back out on rotation as the chickens will see them with renewed interest. Chickens have a similar sense of smell as we do, so another enrichment idea is to sprinkle some herbs or spices on a ramp or perch for a new interesting odor. If the chickens have a small coop, you can create a fenced area to let them wander and scratch for supervised yard time to keep them entertained and active. Be sure they are safe from predators, pests, and wild birds when they are roaming.
As with anything new, it is important that you introduce environmental enrichment in a way that is safe for the chickens. Ensure that nothing harmful can be swallowed and that there aren’t any ropes or chains that could potentially be choking hazards. You can try using an old hose to cover ropes or chains to add additional protection for your flock.
When you add enrichment to your bird’s environment, you should soon see the benefits of improved health and improved production. Have fun trying these ideas with your hens! Remember, they may not take to everything, so try out different ideas on your flock to see what interests them the most and rotate your ideas every few months. Below are some helpful references for more information on how environmental enrichment improves the health of your flock: